The excellent Unison Active blog has picked up on an interesting debate going on in the US labour movement that has some relevance for unions in the UK; to what extent is union density and membership linked to union power and influence?
It’s obvious that to establish relevance and legitimacy unions need to increase membership, so in many ways the more interesting discussion – apart from how unions can most effectively increase membership and density – is about how unions turn membership into power and influence.
The first and most obvious way that unions do this is securing recognition with employers by organising. The second is through mobilisation of members (or potential members) in support of a particular issue. In addition to these ‘ground war’ strategies, unions can also seek power via an ‘air war’ approach; seeking to influence decision makers via high level interventions in the policy making process and through political alliances and affiliations.
Organisers know that whilst these are all legitimate approaches that in an effective union will all be in play simultaneously, it is the ‘ground war’ strategies that really speak to the unique role that unions play in the workplace and beyond.
On the crowded field of pressure groups, think tanks and professional lobbyists it is this link to real people in the world of work as it actually is, rather than as it’s imagined in the Westminster Village that makes the union voice particularly relevant.
How we recruit workers into the union obviously has an impact on our ability to mobilise members when the need arises. The advice and representation that we provide to individual workers will always be an important part of the union offer, however it is important to strike a balance.
If we get the balance wrong and place too much emphasis on a role as service providers and regard members as ‘clients’ then we are diminished and our ability to mobilise members becomes harder. Unions have always been (and must remain) more than this. Members are not just clients but key participants in the life of the union; indeed they are the real source of union power. And unions themselves have to be agents of ‘social action’ not just providers of a ‘social service’.
A good way of seeing the link between membership, mobilisation and the ability of unions to deliver for members, is considering our organisational capacity alongside our leverage. These are the core elements of union “Strategic Choice” developed by David Weil of Boston University and a way of developing union growth strategies that is being used by an increasing number of unions in the UK.
Organisational capacity takes into account the link between officers and activists and union headquarters and regions; the openness to innovation and new ideas (including real support for organising) within the union, the development of new activists and whether it can shift resources quickly to support new campaigns and initiatives.
Strategic leverage takes into account the external environment; the political and economic context, the nature of the labour market, the organisation of work and public awareness of and attitudes towards unions.
The main contention of strategic choice is that before a union can increase its leverage it must improve its organisational capacity. In short, without members that we can mobilise into action the ability of unions to influence key decision makers over the medium and long term will be compromised.
Of course there’s a lot more to Strategic Choice than this, as the unions with whom the TUC is currently working to develop their organising strategies are finding out. But even on its own, this consideration of capacity and leverage is important. It helps to establish how we recruit members and the extent to which we have the ability to put pressure on those whose decisions effect their lives and crucially, from where this leverage is produced.
At the TUC I have the privilege of working alongside some of the best policy officers around. They produce exceptional work that enhances the reputation of not just the TUC but trade unionism in general. But whist the force of our argument is and will remain a vital part of how unions gain influence, it is membership and our ability to mobilise that makes us a movement.